Most people are aware that physical activity is essential to good health and extended sitting is harmful to health. That’s not controversial. It’s how we evolved for the vast majority of our evolutionary history – we had to exert ourselves, often strenuously, on a daily basis. But back then it was called survival and not exercise. Today things are very different. The typical adult in the Western world is sedentary for 60% of their waking hours and sits for an average of 6 hours per day (and often much longer in the case of those who work primarily on computers). In fact, being sedentary is now the norm and exercise is primarily seen as an intervention – something we do to guard against the negative impacts of a sedentary lifestyle.
So here I was thinking that because I engage in moderate to rigorous exercise most days then surely that must counteract any damage done by all the extended sitting I do in front of a computer or being a taxi driver to my kids each day in the car. However multiple studies (eg here and here) show that too much sitting time is still harmful even if you’re getting enough exercise! That’s right, regular vigorous exercise alone isn’t enough to reverse the harmful effects of too much sitting. So if you think your rigorous cross-fit training regimen protects you from the harmful effects of too much sitting when you’re not training – it doesn’t. Damn brother! I realised I am (or was) an “active couch potato”. This phenomenon has become the norm rather than the exception in industrialised countries today.
Ok, so what can we do if we have jobs that involve being in front of a PC for extended periods of time? How can be get off our butts and standing upright?! Here are some suggestion (summarised from a Chris Kresser article published in the Huffington Post with some obligatory modifications to add in my two cents worth):
1. Work at a Standing desk
Nowadays you can buy standing desks, portable standing desks and Ikea has designed an inexpensive new height-adjustable standing desk. Or if spending hundreds or thousands of dollars doesn’t appeal to you, you can, like I did, make your own very inexpensive standing desk by buying a couple of 3-tiered shelving units from KMart at a cost of $17 each, then tip them on their side to sit your keyboard, mouse and monitor on them. For the grand total of $34 I have my own standing bench complete with 6 extra storage cavities. Brilliant. These shelving units happen to be the perfect height for me at 5 feet 7 inches (my arms are at a right angle when i type). I stand with my legs at least hip-width apart and am mindful not to lean to one side and to stand upright. This simple change means that i’m now only sitting when driving or eating thereby reducing the hours on my butt by several hours a day. What if you don’t work from home? I would like to think that most employers nowadays would be open to accommodating a standing bench for their employees. I had a standing desk 17 years ago when I was a lawyer at Freehills so I’d like to think that things have only progressed in the past couple of decades. Back then, of course, I was seen a total aberration in the law firm but the trend caught on and more and more lawyers started to request standing desks.
The transition from sitting to standing at my PC wasn’t too hard for me as I don’t have a regular office job where i’m forced to be at my PC for hours and hours at time. So one question i have been asked a lot recently is how do you transition from going from sitting at a desk all day to standing all day. A button-adjustable stand-up desk is wonderful for this reason as it gives you the option of standing or sitting as you please and you can build up a little each day to standing. However, if you have a non-adjustable standing work desk (like I have) and think that going from sitting all day to standing is going to be too big of an initial adjustment, then sit down at another desk if available wherever you can for non-computer tasks so that you are doing a combo of standing (for PC work) and sitting (eg when talking on the mobile, reading, etc).
2. Take it to the next level with a treadmill desk (this is what health guru Chris Kresser in the USA does).
3. Walk or bike to work (or part of the way) eg get off the train 1 or 2 stops earlier then walk rest of the way.
4. Do whatever mundane household tasks you can standing like opening mail, talking on the phone, reading letters, folding clothes etc. Whenever you are sitting simply ask yourself “must I be sitting right now or could I do this standing?”
5. Take regular standing breaks during extended sitting periods
6. Organise walking or standing meetings. More and more executives are doing this.
7. Sit more actively if you can’t stand or walk eg sit on a fit ball or learn to sit up straight this will engage your back muscles more actively than simply being dead weight in a chair. When driving in the car, you should know that bucket seats are hideous for the lower back. They tighten the hip flexors which in turn strains the lower back. My tip here is the get one or more rolled up towels and place them right in the nook of the seat to effectively level out the seat so that your hips are higher than (or at least the same height as) your knees. It might feel like your driving a bus with your head almost scraping the roof of the car but, hey, it sure beats chronic lower back pain. I miraculously “cured” my incessant gnawing lower back pain within 24 hours by doing this.
As an aside, if you’re spending more and more time standing and /or walking please have a think about what you are wearing on your feet. Thongs and high heels are the worst things you can wear on your feet as movement coach and PT Chris Ogle reminds us regularly in his fascia release classes at Centennial Health Club. Thongs make you claw the ground and put tremendous strain on the feet, tightening the feet muscles and changing your gait. It’s a pet hate of mine seeing young kids wear thongs. Birkenstocks are NOT thongs even though they don’t have a strap around the ankle because they come up quite high on the top of the foot which makes it unnecessary to claw at the ground. Birkies are great but recently I bought these summer sandals (pictured) from Camper- comfy and fun to wear with extra spring in my step. High heels shorten calf muscles which have a detrimental cascading effect on the rest of the body. Occasional wear is unavoidable for most women but wearing them every day can be pretty gruelling on the body (I know as I did it for 10 years as a lawyer in my former life).
Do you use a standing desk? Where did you get it from and how do you find it? I’d be very interested to hear what people are doing for school-aged kids re standing desks. Please share.